Mass Law Blog

Section 230 Supreme Court Argument in Gonzalez v. Google: Keep An Eye on Justice Thomas

by | Feb 7, 2023

When a traditional print publication – a print newspaper or magazine – publishes a defamatory statement it is “strictly liable” for defamation. This is true even if the statement is written by an an unaffiliated third-party – for example a “letter to the editor.”

But the law for print publications is not the same for Internet websites. A law enacted in 1996, the Communications Decency Act, prohibits courts from treating a provider of an “interactive computer service” i.e., a website, as the “publisher or speaker” of third-party content posted on its platform. 47 U.S.C. 230(c)(1). Under this law, referred to as “Section 230,” websites have been granted broad legal protection. Section 230 has created what is, in effect, a form of legal exceptionalism for Internet publishers. Without it any social media site (such as Facebook, Twitter) or review site (such as Amazon) would have been sued into oblivion.

This law has been criticized and defended vigorously for many years. On the whole, the courts have given the law liberal application, dismissing cases against Internet providers in a wide variety of contexts and under many fact scenarios

However, as I recently noted, for the first time the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Section 230 case. Supreme Court Will Decide Whether Google’s Algorithm-Based Recommendations are Protected Under Section 230.

Oral argument in the case is rapidly approaching – the Court will hear argument on February 21, 2023. When that day arrives you can listen to it live here.

Although Section 230 has been most effective in shielding websites from defamation claims, the case before the Supreme Court involves a different law. The plaintiffs are the estate and family of Nohemi Gonzalez, an American citizen who was murdered in a  2015 ISIS attack in Paris. Gonzalez’s family and estate argue that Google violated the Antiterrorism Act, 18 U.S.C. 2331, by providing targeted recommendations for Youtube videos posted by ISIS. Ms. Gonzalez’s family asserts that Google violated the ATA by using its algorithms to recommend ISIS videos and spread ISIS’s message on Youtube. 

The Ninth Circuit held that Section 230 protected Google from liability.

The plaintiffs appealed, posing the following issue to the Court: “Under what circumstances does the defense created by section 230 apply to recommendations of third-party content?” (link)

While you might think that this is a narrow issue, in the cloistered world of Internet/social media law that is far from true. In those regions this is heady stuff. Section 230 has been an almost insurmountable defensive barrier for Internet publishers, and particularly social media companies. Supporters of a broad application of Section 230 are watching the Gonzalez case with apprehension, fearing that the Court will narrow it. Critics of the law are watching the case with hope that the Court will do just that.

Not surprisingly, the case has attracted an enormous number of amicus briefs. I count a total of 79 briefs. They range from briefs filed by Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz (urging that Section 230 be narrowed) to Meta Platforms (Facebook/Instagram) and Microsoft (urging the Court to apply Section 230 broadly). Pretty much every major social media company has weighed in on this case.

When I look at the docket of a Supreme Court appeal one of the first questions I ask is: has the Solicitor General – who represents the executive branch of the federal government – entered an appearance and filed a brief? And if so, which side has it taken?

The Solicitor General, or “SG” is sometimes referred to as the “Tenth Justice.” Its views on a case are important, sometimes more important than those of the parties. Sometimes the Court invites the SG to take a position on a case, other times the SG enters the case at its own initiative. In Gonzalez it was the latter – the SG asked for leave to file a brief and to argue the case at oral argument. Both requests were granted.

The SG has filed a lengthy, complex and highly nuanced brief in this case, parsing various claims and theories under Section 230 in detail. The bottom line is that it is urging the Court to support the Gonzalez family and estate and overrule the Ninth Circuit:

Plaintiffs’ allegations regarding YouTube’s use of algorithms and related features to recommend ISIS content require a different analysis. That theory of ATA liability trains on YouTube’s own conduct and its own communications, over and above its failure to block or remove ISIS content from its site. Because that theory does not ask the court to treat YouTube as a publisher or speaker of content created and posted by others, Section 230 protection is not available.

In other words, in the eyes of the SG Gonzalez wins, Google loses. 

The SG is careful to note that this does not mean that Google should be deemed an information content provider with respect to the videos themselves. In other words, the SG argues that Google is not liable for the ISIS postings – only that Section 230 does not shelter it from potential liability based on the fact that its algorithm recommended them. 

All eyes will be on Justice Thomas during oral argument on February 21st. While several justices have expressed concerns over the broad immunity provided by the lower courts’ application of Section 230, Justice Thomas has been the most outspoken Justice on this issue. He expressed his views on Section 230 in Malwarebytes v. Enigma Software Group USA, a case where the Court denied review. 

In Malwarebytes Justice Thomas agreed with the denial, but wrote an almost 3,000 word “Statement” criticizing much of the Section 230 jurisprudence for “adopting the too-common practice of reading extra immunity into statutes where it does not belong.” He criticized cases providing Section 230 immunity to websites that selected, edited and added commentary to third-party content, tailored third-party content to facilitate illegal human trafficking, and published third-party content on sites that had design defects lacking safety features. Importantly for this appeal he criticized websites that utilized recommendations, as Google does on Youtube.  

There is little question where his vote will fall.

My prediction: Section 230 will not emerge from this appeal unscathed. The only question is the extent to which the Supreme Court will narrow its scope. Justice Thomas will write the opinion.

Update: The Supreme Court dodged the issue based on its holding in Twitter v. Taamneh. In that case, decided the same day as Gonzalez, the Court declined to impose secondary liability on tech companies for allegedly failing to prevent ISIS from using their platforms for recruiting, fundraising, and organizing. The Court ruled that internet platforms cannot be held secondarily liable under Section 2333 of the Anti-Terrorism Act based solely on broad allegations that they could have taken more aggressive action to prevent terrorists from using their services. This ruling applied to Gonzalez case as well, and therefore the Court did not address the Section 230 issues.